By Andy Lowe
The bridge guard spotted the stranger from a distance, walking down the main street. Though the street was wide, a light morning fog had kept the man concealed for a time, indistinct from the other silhouettes bustling between the shops and houses. The guard did not recognise him, but he could see the sword the man wore at his waist. People stepped aside and bowed politely as the stranger walked directly past them; those on the edges of the street pretended not to see him. He was clearly approaching the river that divided the village, heading for the bridge. It was also clear to the guard that this Samurai, if he was one, was not from the village. With civil war raging between fiefs, there were few Samurai left to guard the small community.
Perhaps he is a Ronin, the guard thought, another wandering Samurai vagrant with no master to serve.
In any case, he seemed like trouble. The guard clenched his spear.
“Get Toshira San,” he called to his son. “Tell him it is not important, but may become so.”
The boy ran off, away from the eastern bank of the river from which the man was approaching. Nearer, the stranger looked like Ronin, devoid of armour or a short sword, his hair dishevelled, although still kept in the Samurai pait, his kimono and hakama showing several tears and stitches, although he wore them neatly.
In these days of war and famine many Samurai look the same, the guard thought. I must be prudent and polite, for fear of offending him.
Nevertheless, he had his job to do.
As the Ronin came nearer, the guard took a step forward and bowed, standing in his way. The Ronin stopped ten paces from the bridge and gave an identical bow, leaning no more nor less.
“Greetings,” the guard called, bowing once more. “By the laws of this village, barring presentation of officially sealed documents, every person must pay the sum of twenty mon for the use of this bridge.”
The stranger frowned slightly.
“I am Samurai,” he answered. “Besides which, so sorry, but the enforcement of such a payment is outrageous.” He made the forceful point without giving away any sense of discontent, keeping his face blank and passive.
“So sorry, but the law is the law. Exceptions must be agreed with the through the village elders or the head of our Samurai.”
The bridge tax had been the elaborate idea of the village elders. The income generated from the bridge in turn helped pay for the increasing war taxes that every town and village had to pay toward their fief. More importantly, the bridge tax brought greater control in the village. Traders on one side of the river were less likely to steal customers living on the other side. Whilst travelling across the bridge was legal, the tax discouraged people from doing so, effectively creating two communities within one.
The Ronin took three steps and stopped. The people in the street stayed well away from both he and the guard, acting as if neither man existed.
“If you will not let me pass,” the Ronin spoke, “I might follow the river until I find a bridge I may use without parting from my money.”
“That is your choice,” the guard answered, knowing that there existed no other bridge either way for several miles.
“Let us say that I have decided to use another bridge. Either way, I shall cross the river. So you may as well let me use this bridge.”
“You may do so, of course. But, so sorry, you must in that case pay the fare.”
The Ronin took another three steps towards the bridge. Just as the guard thought a fight was inevitable, the Ronin turned and walked a short distance along the riverbank before facing the river again. The Ronin removed the sheathed sword from his belt before stepping down the short but steep slope into the water. The guard stood still, watching aghast. The current was brisk, but as the Ronin’s feet entered the flowing waters they adopted a strong stance that kept him standing firm.
The guard was both shocked and confused by the stranger’s audacity, unsure of what he should do. He looked around for reinforcements, but all he could see were the similarly astonished face of other villagers, many of whom had betrayed their show of indifference and run to the riverbank to observe the Ronin’s crossing.
“This bridge is closed until further notice!” the guard called out to both sides of the river. Knowing he could not leave his post, all he felt able to do was watch the man in the river ten feet below him. “Be reasonable and return,” he shouted at him.
The Ronin did not reply. He moved slowly as he approached the middle of the river, keeping his sword above his head as the water reached up to his chest. His hakama dragged in the current and a few times he seemed to lose his footing. As the Ronin began to slip, he caught his balance against the current, standing still for a few seconds before moving onwards.
As he neared the opposite bank, the people watching him from there stepped back. A few seconds later the onlookers all dispersed and once more went about their business. To the guard’s relief, the village Samurai had arrived at the scene.
The Ronin reached the opposite bank. Whilst still treading in the water he stopped to catch his breath and then began walking up the slope of the bank, his sword still in hand. Halfway up he stopped as a tall Samurai stood above him on the bank. Behind him stood a Samurai archer, an arrow poised on his bow.
“I am Hiroko Toshira,” the tall man called down to the Ronin, in spite of the short distance between them. “I request that you turn back. Should you wish to cross the river you need to pay the bridge fare in accordance to the law or else find another bridge to cross.”
“I was told that the fare was for crossing the bridge,” the Ronin replied, “and not the river.”
“Clever use of words will get you nowhere. Turn back now.”
“So sorry for the disturbance I caused, but I am here now. I kindly request that you let me be on my way and I shall bother you no longer.”
The Ronin remained calm as Toshira San’s temper ebbed away. From the bridge the guard noticed the Ronin moving his weight onto his right leg, while shifting his left foot forward onto a half-buried rock on the slope, settling into a ready stance. The Ronin’s left knee then slowly began to bend. The guard realised that the trouble he dreaded was approaching. The warning signs came too late as Toshira San gave his final warning.
“I demand you surrender your sword and accompany us,” he shouted.
“I will not,” the Ronin answered. “Please let me be on my way.”
Toshira San said nothing else. He drew back as the archer stepped forward and took his place. The archer understood Toshira San’s silent order. Allowing no time for the accused man to view his fate, the archer pulled the arrow back on his bow, taking aim.
The Ronin was too fast.
Just before the arrow was fired the Ronin darted up the slope in what seemed like a single bound. The flying arrow missed his head by inches, hitting the water behind him. The Ronin flew past the archer as his unsheathed sword slit the man’s side open with a deep, mortal gash. Toshira San had his sword half-drawn when the Ronin reached him. The Ronin spun, his sodden hakama sending water droplets flying in every direction as he decapitated Toshira San with a single blow.
The archer managed to utter a single piercing scream before falling dead. The killing had lasted no more than three seconds.
The Ronin stood half-crouched between the two corpses, sword in one hand and sheath in the other, as the villagers quietly fled to nearby shelters. The guard stood frozen on the bridge, wanting to drop his spear but unable to loosen his fingers. A moment passed as silence returned to the streets. The Ronin straightened up and swung his sword in a circular motion to flick the blood off his blade. Wiping the blade off Toshira San’s sleeve, he then resheathed his sword and placed it back on his belt.
The Ronin walked to the archer’s body and pried off the man’s bow and quiver of arrows, strapping them over his left shoulder. He turned to look at the guard on the bridge, his face showing no emotion. Neither man said anything, the guard praying that his son had taken refuge with the others.
The Ronin finally straightened once more toward the guard, and bowed low.
“So sorry for the disturbance I caused,” the Ronin spoke, “but I must be on my way. Please ensure that I am left to do so.”
The Ronin walked off at a firm pace down the main street leading out of the village. When he was barely fifty paces away, the guard’s trance was broken as another of the village’s Samurai guards grabbed him from behind. It was Kisho San, second in command after Toshiro San. He stood with three other Samurai on the eastern edge of the bridge.
“What has happened?” Kisho San shouted. “Speak, you cowardly dog!”
The guard pointed down the western street at the Ronin gaining ground between them. He explained the events of the last few minutes. Without considering the repercussions, the guard mentioned the Ronin’s request that he be left alone.
The massively built Kisho San tossed him aside like a pebble and turned to his men.
“Clearly we are dealing with an able swordsman,” he told them. “Grab three horses and finish him off outside the village. Hurry before he reaches the forest!”
The guards ran off downriver to the stables. Looking down the western street, the guard and Kisho San could still see the Ronin in the distance, approaching the edge of the village.
“And you,” Kisho San turned to the bridge guard, “standing there without so much as a shaving cut! I shall deal with you later.”
The guards soon returned mounted on fine horses, each man equipped with quiver and bow. They headed off after the Ronin. Kisho San concealed his anxiety. Horses were precious at such a time of war and not to be used idly. Then again, he thought, his direct superior, Toshiro San, was lying dead a few feet away, his head a few feet further.
From the edge of the village, sitting tall on their horses, the guards easily spotted the renegade Ronin walking across the grasslands that separated the village from the forest. They gave chase, pulling out their arrows.
While still some distance away the walking Ronin turned around into a stance, bow in hand. One of the horsemen fired an arrow that the Ronin stepped aside to miss, not breaking his stance. With a swift move, the Ronin pulled an arrow from the quiver, set it on the bow and fired. From his horse the guard had less room to manoeuvre. The arrow hit him square in the eye.
The dead man dropped off the horse as the other Samurai both fired their arrows in a narrow formation. This attack was harder to evade. The Ronin turned to reduce his forward surface, but while the arrows missed, one of them nipped the back of his right shoulder. Seeing him stoop from the injury, the Samurai closed in with their horses. The Ronin fired a second arrow, missing both men. He immediately pulled a third arrow. One of the Samurai paid too close attention to the second arrow, letting its proximity distract him as the third arrow buried deep into his chest.
The remaining Samurai was close, his sword unsheathed. He galloped past, deftly swinging his sword to the Ronin’s neck. The Ronin had just time to jerk back and save his head, but the guard showed enough prowess to change his aim and send the very tip of his sword into the man’s upper arm. But as the guard rode on he became vulnerable. The Ronin fired a fourth arrow. The Samurai anticipated the attack and crouched. But the Ronin had thought one step ahead and sent the arrow into the guard’s left thigh. The arrow pierced right through the leg and stung into the side of the horse. The animal balked and sent the weakened Samurai flying off. The Samurai was momentarily down before recovering, although clearly in pain. As he grabbed his bow and prepared to fire, a fifth arrow flew past his own and hit him in the throat.
The Samurai fell face down, suffocating on his blood. Through the ankle high grass, in his dying moments, he could see the Ronin standing twenty paces away, bowing at him.
Of the three horses, two had run off, whilst the injured horse stood nearby, fidgeting from its minor but painful wound. After collecting the arrows from the dead men’s quivers, the Ronin gently took the horse by the harness and lead it on foot towards the forest.
As he reached the trees he saw far behind him a group of onlookers standing at the edge of the village, though they were too distant to identify.
“Tell me what you saw,” shouted Kisho San. It had been two days since the elusive Ronin had passed through the village. “Speak child!”
Although in his early teens, the youth felt humbled to the state of a six-year-old, standing before the massive frame of Kisho San, new head of the village’s Samurai guard. The boy suddenly wished he had not seen what he had, or at least not told anybody.
“I was in the forest,” said the youth. “I saw the Ronin.”
“Where?” Kisho San barked. “Did he see you?”
“He did. It was just outside the smaller clearing, the side opposite the coast. He saw me first.”
“What did he do? Was the horse there?”
“It was. He did nothing. He was preparing some food over a fire and called me over, inviting me to join him. I told him I had to go.”
The youth stopped himself, not wanting to admit that in his fear he had promised the renegade Ronin he would not tell anyone about him. The Ronin, however, had presented no threat and simply smiled.
“You need not worry, child,” the Ronin had said. “You can tell them what you like. But if you do, please pass on a message as well.”
Having revealed the Ronin’s whereabouts, the youth now felt duty bound to honour the stranger’s request.
Gathering courage, the youth looked up at Kisho San and spoke. “The Ronin informed me that he was camping in the forest to tend to his wounds and the horse’s. He claims the horse as a trophy battle. He respectfully requests that he be allowed to rest and then requests that¾ oh, so sorry,” he paused to correct himself, as the Ronin had been very specific about the words he should use. “The Ronin once again requests that you let him be on his way. That is all he¾”
The youth was cut short as Kisho San hit him across the face with the back of his hand, sending him to the ground. Kisho San then placed his foot over the crying youth’s chest, pressing down.
“Cowards, all of you!” he shouted at the surrounding people in the square. “You run and hide when a stranger attacks, but you open your ears to any gossip surrounding the affair. We shall see how curious you act when the man’s head is spiked in the square!” He lifted his foot off the youth who crawled away, gasping.
Later that afternoon, Kisho San led a search party into the forest. His five remaining Samurai accompanied him, together with eight Ashigaru guards and six able volunteers from the village. He knew he was taking a risk, leaving the village inappropriately guarded. But he felt that his honour as head of the village guard, in Toshiro San’s permanent absence, was at stake. Three remaining Ashigaru men, the bridge guard included, had been left in the village with twenty volunteers, assigned to impose a curfew in the village until his return.
The six volunteers on the party had not officially volunteered but neither dared turn down Kisho San’s invitation to join the search. As mere commoners they were exceptionally allowed to be armed with short knives and long sticks. A shade of cold pallor hung on their faces as they travelled deeper into the trees.
By comparison, the faces of Kisho San’s Samurai were full blooded and healthy. Whilst civil war surrounded the province, life in the village was dull for the Samurai. The hunt for the errant Ronin finally gave them a chance to display their valour. The Samurai rode their precious horses through the forest with the Ashigaru guards and volunteers following on foot. Kisho San rode on in front. He kept his face away from the others, not wanting to give away the apprehension showing on his flushed features. The Ronin affair was spiralling out of control, he thought. He had to end it fast. He knew the volunteers were no match against the stranger, but he hoped they might occupy him while of his Samurai finished him off with a swift arrow.
“I want no argument over who gets to fight him,” he had warned his men, “and no attempt to stall his death in order to engage in any duel. We kill him and then go back.”
Somehow he doubted that the warning would suffice to quell the urges of his frustrated and battle-hungry men.
The Samurai all dismounted and quietly closed in on foot as the small regiment approached the clearing. They found the small camp between the sparse trees, just where the youth had said. A fire was dying out. The missing horse was there, unsaddled and attached to a tree. The saddle and horse cover were laid out on the ground by the fire as a makeshift bed. All was quiet.
Already the daylight was beginning to fade. Speed was of the essence, as the village was vulnerable so long as it remained improperly guarded. Kisho San ordered the men to split into small groups and search for the Ronin, keeping two of his Samurai by him. Though the wider search would speed up the proceedings, Kisho San was all too aware that spreading his forces over a larger area involved a further risk.
He was right.
An arrow whispered past, hitting Kisho San in the neck. As he fell to his knees, holding on to his wound, he grunted through coughed up blood, “Find him, and kill him!”
The nearby guards had seen where the arrow had come from. A man’s scream soon followed, coming from the same direction.
The two Samurai left their ailing superior and spread out, heading towards the firing point. They knew that most of the search party was already out there, close to the enemy. One of the Samurai unsheathed his sword, while the other placed an arrow on his bow. As they walked through the camp they remained prepared to avoid any more incoming arrows.
A scream bellowed onwards from between the trees.
Beyond the camp they found the bodies of two Ashigaru guards and three volunteers. Throats cuts, arrows protruding in chests, necks and faces, most of the lethal wounds designed to stifle the victim’s screams.
The two Samurai kept close and poised. A light breeze rustled the leaves in the trees. The cloudy sky between the branches began turning dark. The men knew they had been there longer than planned and that time was running out. The passage of time, however, was indiscernible in their trepidation. There was no sign of the other men.
It only took a second. A noise ahead. The Samurai archer took three steps and tightened his bow. There was nothing. He relaxed slightly and waited for his companion to catch up. The corner of his eye then spotted the danger. His companion was dead, and the man behind him—
The archer turned with his arrow pulled back. The Ronin was right behind him. The headless body of his companion lay further back against a tree they had just passed. Just as the archer released his arrow, the Ronin’s hand reached out and caught the string and arrow between his finger. Moving too fast for the stunned archer, the Ronin ripped the bow from his hands, turning it to release the arrow into the man’s belly. The archer uttered no sound as his confused mind was still trying to catch up with what had happened, still looking for the enemy who by then was already back on the hunt.
Another scream echoed through the forest.
Kisho San did not know how much time had lapsed, but the night was now almost fully upon them. He lay down at the foot of a tree, spitting blood into the earth as he prepared for his last breath. The screams had ended for some time.
In front of him the Ronin appeared, standing tall, his clothes soaked in blood, breathing heavily.
“So sorry for the disturbance I caused, but I made my intentions clear. I shall now go on.”
The Ronin walked off into the darkness as Kisho San’s life expired.
None of the men returned from the forest. The next day, the remaining Ashigaru guards gathered yet more volunteers to investigate. They found the corpses of every man lined up on the ground by the remains of the Ronin’s camp. The horses were eventually accounted for, though one was missing.
The bridge guard knew that, going at a good pace, they could have caught up with the Ronin to demand further justice. He also knew, however, that none of the guards would suggest they did so. It was not that they feared dying. In their eyes, their companions had met an honourable end in confronting a mighty opponent.
The fear was for the village, now left practically defenceless in a time of war. The foolish pride of Kisho San and the Samurai guards had blinded them to the fact that their first duty was towards protecting their community. In that, they had failed. After all, the bridge guard thought, the stranger had never posed a threat. He had simply requested that he be allowed to be on his way.
The time had come to grant the man’s request. It was time, too, for the village to face the consequences of their leaders’ pride and obstinacy.
Miles away, the Ronin kept his horse apace, continuing on his long, endless journey.